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March 25, 2009
Pakistani region where the brutal Taleban are back in control
Stuart Ramsay in Mingora
A man accused of burglary is questioned by a masked gunman who then casually
lifts a revolver and pulls the trigger at point-blank range. The man staggers
back but is shot again and falls to the ground. The gunman steps forward and
fires three more bullets into his body and head. Nobody watching moves.
The Taleban are back in charge, and this time in Pakistan. In Mingora only 110
miles northwest of Islamabad, the capital, these hooded enforcers are the law,
patrolling the streets and meting out summary justice.
In front of large crowds they flog people who have broken edicts that the
Taleban have set. Drug addicts and dealers are held down in the dust by heavily
armed militants and flogged. They cry out in pain shouting for Allah. The
punishment is brutal but has popular support.
This beautiful valley region in central northeast Pakistan - once a popular
holiday destination and described by the Queen during a stay here as the
"Switzerland" of the former Empire - is now a Taleban mini-state where Sharia
is applied ruthlessly.
The Pakistani Army and its political masters have given up a two-year battle
here and handed over control. It now looks and feels like Afghanistan in 2001.
Taleban fighters in hooded masks with eye-holes guard the roads leading into
Mingora. In the town black-turbaned outrunners wield wooden sticks to clear a
path for a Taleban convoy of pick-up trucks.
The Taleban have given us permission to visit, suspending their standing order
to catch or kill all foreigners entering Swat. We are the first outsiders
allowed in since they took control last month.
Taleban headquarters is a pleasant villa in the centre of the city where black
flags flutter above high double gates. Inside, in a walled garden, Taleban
elders sit in groups on the grass, chatting and waiting for their next audience
with Maulana Sufi Muhammad, their quasi-spiritual leader and political
Several cover their faces when we reveal our camera. The old guard in
particular still observes the fundamentalist belief that all pictures and
images are an affront to the Prophet Muhammad.
"Swat is the start and it is a test of the religion and the system and the law.
It is a step forward. Give it time and you will see this is what people want,"
Muslim Khan, a charismatic English-speaking Taleban leader tells me. The
Taleban have taken control here by overwhelming the security forces, in part
with militia attacks on the army but predominantly with a staggering campaign
of suicide bomb attacks.
The ruins of government buildings, schools, barracks, police stations and
checkpoints are everywhere. The central police station has been reduced to
rubble. Police and army units live in the ruins, protected by sandbagged
foxholes, and don't dare leave. The attacks have claimed the lives of thousands
of police, army and civilians. In the end the security forces offered a
one-sided ceasefire. In return for peace the Taleban can administer the region,
run Sharia courts, ban women from marketplaces, outlaw music shops and stop
girls older than 13 going to school.
Mr Khan, who was educated in the US before returning to fight in Afghanistan,
acknowledges that this region no longer belongs to mainstream Pakistan. "I send
a message to the people of the West: stop spending your money on tanks and
aircraft and attacking the poor people of the world. Look after your own poor
people and let us be. You must be positive not negative. Change your policies
you cannot win here or in Afghanistan. Keep out," he said.
Pakistan knows that these images and stories will cause consternation in
Western nations fighting the Taleban in Afghanistan, but the central Government
has little control here now.
It is this that worries Richard Holbrooke, America's Special Representative for
Afghanistan and Pakistan, who believes growing instability and the
Talebanisation of nuclear-armed Pakistan poses a bigger threat than the
insurgency in Afghanistan.
It is hard to gauge support for the movement in Swat. Dissent has been
suppressed but a population disillusioned by years of fighting and ineffectual
government can at least get on with their lives. One thing, however, is
abundantly clear: in Swat the Taleban writ is the only one that counts.
Stuart Ramsay, is Sky News' chief correspondent. Pakistan: Terror's Front Line
airs on Sky News this week.